Able to Participate: Disability and Race in British Children’s Books

This fall, when I participated in a daylong symposium at Amnesty International UK on children’s books and human rights, the author Alex Wheatle spoke about how he pitched a book to a children’s publisher about a Black British boy growing up in a care home; the publisher worried that there were too many issues to the book.  In other words, a kid can’t be in a care home AND Black AND in a children’s book.  Being Black, for many children’s publishers (even now) is “problem” enough.  The idea that not being white is a problem in British society is also likely to be one of the reasons that the CLPE Reflecting Realities report found that only one of the books with BAME representation could be classified as a “comedy”; if you are a problem, you, and your life, can’t be funny.  For years, it was seen as a generous, liberal white attitude to suggest—as one character does in Josephine Kamm’s 1962 Out of Step—that “there’s nothing wrong in being a West Indian or an African or an Indian.  They’re every bit as good as we are; they look different, that’s all there is to it” (20).  To argue that “there’s nothing wrong” with being yourself suggests that someone else thinks that there is.

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And yet—as the Amnesty symposium emphasized—children have the right to be represented in all aspects of society, including children’s books.  And that means all children, including those who are experiencing either a temporary or permanent disability.  The UN’s Declaration of the Rights of the Child has, as its fifth point, “The child who is physically, mentally or socially handicapped shall be given the special treatment, education and care required by his particular condition” (https://www.unicef.org/malaysia/1959-Declaration-of-the-Rights-of-the-Child.pdf). Special education and care should not mean isolating the child and making them feel “othered”, but helping them find ways to participate in society.  British children’s literature has made great strides in the last few years in depicting disabilities in a broad spectrum of books, including the 2016 Carnegie Medal winner, One, by Sarah Crossan about conjoined twins.  But it is unusual to find a main character of colour in a British children’s book who is also disabled—too many “problems” for one book!

The issue is not just academic, or a fictional scenario.  Amelia Hill, writing for the Guardian, highlights the case of two disabled children that the Home Office is trying to deport to Pakistan despite the children being born in the UK (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/dec/12/home-office-disabled-children-leave-country). Disabled children often suffer discrimination; disabled children of colour can experience a double discrimination due to racist attitudes that a person’s “race” is a problem.  And being a person of colour doesn’t necessarily mean you are more sensitive to the “problem” of disability–most people need to learn to look for ability and strength in disabled people rather than othering them.

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Brahmachari’s main character, Laila, thinks she understands her best friend Kez–but sometimes all she see is her disability and the way it interrupts their friendship.

It is therefore encouraging to see more books being published that include disabled (temporarily or permanently) characters in books with or by people of colour.  The disabled characters are not just window dressing, but play major roles in the books.  Sita Brahmachari’s character Kez, in Tender Earth (Macmillan 2017) is Laila Levenson’s best friend, but that friendship is tested because of Kez’s disability.  She is in a wheelchair, and although she and Laila have been friends since primary school, Kez decides she won’t come over to Laila’s house any more when they start secondary school after Laila’s father carries her down the stairs.  “I never want to be carried” (58), Kez tells Laila.  Laila thinks of herself as being the only one who understands Kez, but has to learn to see her in new and capable ways, and also learn how to make accommodations for her friend without patronizing her, before they can be close again.  Kez is white British, but makes up part of Brahmachari’s multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-ethnic, multi-able cast of characters, because as she herself puts it, “These ‘different’ characters populate my books because I know that they’re all ‘here!’ and more than anything I love to give each of them their “rites of passage” moment when they find a voice” (https://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2014/oct/15/sita-brahmachari-diverse-characters-diverse-names).

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Depression is a disability that affects all kinds of people–but it’s not always a result of racism for people of colour.

Bali Rai’s Stay a Little Longer (Barrington Stoke 2018) deals with a different kind of disability, the emotional and mental disability of depression.  Rai distinguishes between forms and levels of severity of depression in his novel. Aman, the main character, is thirteen and grieving the death of her father. Although she considers herself “messed up” (69) for still grieving after a year, her friend Lola points out that “It’s not a competition to see who recovers the fastest” (69).  Aman’s grief affects her every day, but it is clear that she will return to her old self, more or less, eventually.  However, an older man that Aman meets, Gurnam, has a more serious form of depression that leads him to attempt suicide.  Aman, who has friends and family supporting her through her grief, wants to be supportive to Gurnam as well, but she has to learn to go about it in the right way.  She learns that love helps, but love alone is not enough; disabilities, even when they are not physical, require medical treatment.  Race plays an interesting role in Rai’s book; Gurnam is harassed by some local boys, but Aman cannot understand why because “The lads are Asian, just like Gurnam” (90).  She assumes that racism is the only reason a man would be harassed in Britain.  However, it turns out that racism has nothing to do with it.  Gurnam is gay, and the boys think that homosexuality is “Against nature” (58).  Rai’s book highlights the way that being “othered” can lead to disabling depression, but in doing so he also reminds readers that race is only one piece of a person’s identity—and not always the “problem.”

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Disability doesn’t mean un-ability; Laird’s character Musa has strengths his brother Omar wishes he had.

Elizabeth Laird’s Welcome to Nowhere might reasonably be expected to deal with a similar emotional disability, as the novel concerns a Syrian family who become refugees in Jordan before eventually being given asylum in Britain.  Refugees and migrants have formed an ever-increasing part of children’s literature over the past decade, but generally the stories have concerned able-bodied characters; again, the idea that being a refugee is enough of a “problem” for a single book applies.  But Laird includes two disabled characters who play pivotal roles in the story: the main character Omar’s older brother, Musa, who has cerebral palsy, and their younger sister Nadia, who has a heart condition.  Musa’s cerebral palsy affects the plot—his movement is restricted, and at times Omar has to carry him.  But he is also a “total brainbox” (15) who gets involved in the rebellion and has to be saved from being shot by Omar.  Musa uses his disability to his advantage when soldiers approach them, “making babbling noises” (57) and flailing his arms “wildly” (57) to make the soldiers think he is harmless.  His condition and Nadia’s heart problems put them on top of the list for asylum in Britain.  It is only at the end of the novel that race/ethnicity come into play, however.  Musa does not want to leave for Britain, arguing, “You know what the British say about Arabs and Muslims?  They think we’re all crazy terrorists” (315).  Laird concludes her story with questions that acknowledge that attitudes toward “others” are still a “problem” : “If you have read to the end of the story you might be wondering what will happen next . . . How will they get on in their new life in Britain?  Will people welcome them? . . . Will they be helped to settle in and follow their dreams?  The answer to those questions lies with you” (334).  At the end of the day, it is up to all of us to ensure that every person is able to participate in society, and stop closing doors because of what we perceive as their “otherness”.

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Brown Bombers? What Readers Expect, and What Viewers Get

This week, the comics publisher Abrams withdrew plans to publish a graphic version of a short story by Jack Gantos, “A Suicide Bomber Sits in the Library.”  The story was originally published in 2016 by Walker Books, in a collection entitled Here I Stand: Stories that Speak for Freedom.  The collection of short stories was edited by Amnesty International, in order to encourage readers to think about their human rights.  Nicky Parker, the education director for Amnesty International UK, wrote in an afterword to the collection, “This book is inspired by the fact that human rights can be denied or abused even in countries like the UK or the USA, and we need to defend them constantly.  Stories and poetry are a wonderful way of making us think, helping us understand the world and other people.  More than that, they can inspire our empathy—which we need if we’re to overcome prejudice” (Here I Stand 310).

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Abrams Publishing pulled the graphic novel version of this story after protestors objected to the illustrations.

I quote Parker at length because the original story written by Gantos did not, to my knowledge, raise the same kind of protest that the graphic version has done, and I think it’s important to understand why.  Gantos’s short story begins with the simple sentence, “He is a boy and he is bored” (100).  A reader will learn over the course of the eight-page story that the boy is young, and that he cannot read, and that he is part of some religious or faith-based group that believes that those who have different faiths should be destroyed.  He lives in a place that has libraries, and “place[s] of worship” (101) and markets.  We are not told what the boy looks like, other than that he is wearing a red jacket and he is “little” (103).  We are not told where the town is. The reader may make assumptions about the suicide bomber, but the textual evidence will not support a definitive racial, ethnic or national origin for the boy.  In fact, if anything, the author’s own note at the end of the story problematizes any assumptions that readers might have: Gantos indicates that the inspiration for his story was the French Enlightenment philosopher, Denis Diderot.  Diderot, who Gantos suggests, “wrote a good bit on religious fanaticism” (108) was concerned with white, European, Catholic fanaticism.  In his writings, Diderot discusses the logical inconsistencies within Christianity, and the ways that these inconsistencies are used to inflict pain on other humans.  Gantos’s note reminds the reader that his story could take place anywhere—“even in countries like the UK or the USA,” where indeed, white boys commit terrorist acts against schools, synagogues, and anti-racism protests with alarming frequency.  By failing to give the suicide bomber a definitive identity, Gantos gives readers the opportunity to question or consider their prejudices about who might be a suicide bomber and why.

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The unillustrated version of Gantos’s story originally appeared in this collection produced by Amnesty International.

Turning Gantos’s story into a graphic novel, however, removes the potential for the bomber to be an “every boy”.  Dave McKean, who illustrated for Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, depicts the suicide bomber as a brown boy, and many assumed that he was not just brown, but Muslim (I have only seen the front cover of the graphic version, so don’t know whether other clues in the illustrations suggested the boy was Muslim).  A thousand people signed a letter to the publisher, written by the Asian Author Alliance, calling for the book to be scrapped, saying the book was “steeped in Islamophobia and profound ignorance” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/nov/26/a-suicide-bomber-sits-in-the-library-comic-pulled-protests-jack-gantos-dave-mckean).  In pulling the text, the publisher and the illustrator agreed that they had erred in creating a book that reinforced, rather than challenged stereotypes.

The discussion about Gantos’s story and the graphic novel version of it brought to mind another story for young readers about a terrorist which was eventually turned into a graphic novel: Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses (2001). Like “Suicide Bomber,” Blackman’s story includes a conflicted young terrorist, but there are many differences that complicate Noughts and Crosses.  The terrorist in Blackman’s story is a racial terrorist, reacting to an unequal society rather than a difference in belief systems.  He carries out and succeeds in his terrorist act, and is eventually hanged for it.

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Novelist Malorie Blackman also wrote about a young terrorist involved in a bombing.

The terrorist in Blackman’s novel is also white.

Callum MacGregor, Noughts and Crosses’ male protagonist, is not the bomber in the story–it is actually his father and brother who plant the bomb–but he becomes a part of their terrorist organization.  Although he is white, he is not like those the media in the US and UK refuse to call terrorists (“lone wolf” is often the preferred term): the disaffected white males who attack their own peers in a school or movie theater, or drive cars into peaceful protests, or go on shooting rampages in synagogues or Jewish daycare centers.  He is a member of the oppressed in Noughts and Crosses, a novel set in an alternate universe where Black people are in charge and white people lack access to freedom and power.  Blackman’s novel deliberately makes the point that racism is about power, not innate inferiority/superiority.  By only referring to Callum’s whiteness from time to time in the novel, she also requires the reader to constantly revise assumptions about race.  I have taught this novel several times, and white students as well as Black have told me they had to keep reminding themselves that Callum was white.  Our assumptions about race, power and terrorism are that deeply engrained.  It is this constant revisioning that makes Blackman’s novel so effective.

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The graphic novel version does not force assumptions to be constantly questioned.

It is also, paradoxically, what makes the graphic novel version less successful.  Even though Ian Edginton and John Aggs’s 2015 graphic novel follows Blackman’s story and reproduces its reversed racial hierarchy, the reader no longer needs to repeatedly reconsider what a terrorist looks like, because the pictures show them.  But because Blackman’s novel is set in an alternate world rather than being a version of our contemporary one, the viewer of the graphic novel also can separate these two worlds.  They can think, “Callum is a white terrorist in Blackman’s book, but that is a different world from ours”.  The illustrator’s vision erases the need for the reader to revision.

Jack Gantos concludes his author’s note following “Suicide Bomber” with a quotation from Diderot: “But who shall be the master, the writer or the reader?” (108).  In the best situation, both are master, because the writer presents a range of possibilities and the reader is open to thinking about those possibilities.  The Barthesian failure of both of the graphic novels I discuss here is the closing off of these possibilities, forcing us to accept a world in which suicide bombers come in one color only.

Like a Norman Rockwell Painting: Freedom, Justice, and Children’s Literature

This week, Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, a holiday that has always been about more than a harvest feast or festival.  Both in its root (and somewhat mythic) origins as a celebratory meal between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people at Plymouth Plantation, and in its nationalization as a federal holiday during the Civil War, Thanksgiving in the US is meant to encourage Americans to think about unity.  There are two main images Americans conjure up during this time of year.  The first is a picture of the “first Thanksgiving” showing happy pilgrim women carrying historically unlikely food and serving equally happy Wampanoag people.  It is an image which, in my own childhood, led to many a school “feast” of dry cornbread and koolaid consumed while wearing paper pilgrim “hats” or construction paper-feather headdresses.  (I’m told they don’t do this anymore, and yet a quick internet check shows several “teacher” websites touting the “fun” of wearing feather headdresses.  One even suggests adding gold sparkles, perhaps to recall the reason that Columbus and his men led a genocide of native Caribbeans.)

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Where’s my construction paper pilgrim hat? Charles Schulz’s version of the first Thanksgiving, with smiles all around and historical inaccuracies aplenty.

The other popular image of Thanksgiving, however, is more modern.  It comes from the painter Norman Rockwell, and was a part of a series that Rockwell did for The Saturday Evening Post in 1943 based on a speech by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  The speech, and the paintings, are called the “Four Freedoms” because they illustrate freedoms that Roosevelt hoped a post-war world would embrace: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.  The “Thanksgiving” image is Rockwell’s depiction of Freedom from Want, set in his very white American Vermont town.

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This image captured white Americans dream of Thanksgiving unity during wartime.

In fact, all of Rockwell’s freedoms paintings depict white Americans, because these were his neighbors—but also, perhaps, because of where he published. According to a special exhibition on Google Arts and Culture produced in coordination with the Norman Rockwell Museum, “In an interview later in his life, Rockwell recalled having been directed to paint out a black person out of a group picture because ‘Saturday Evening Post’ policy at that time allowed showing black people only in service industry jobs” (https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/ogKyOs7llcWMIg). Rockwell did go on to paint three important Civil Rights Era paintings, most notably “The Problem We All Live With” based on Ruby Bridges’ integration of a New Orleans elementary school. But his lasting image of Thanksgiving continues to remind us of who had access to freedom in 1943.

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But Rockwell knew that not all Americans had the freedoms white Americans took for granted, even twenty years after his Four Freedoms paintings. This depiction of Ruby Bridges was published in Look magazine in 1964.

This past March, in honor of the 75th anniversary of the Rockwell “Four Freedoms,” Smithsonian magazine had four artists reimagine the paintings for today’s America.  I was particularly interested in the revisioning of Freedom from Fear.  In the original painting, the parents of two small children watch them sleep.  The father is holding a folded newspaper with the words “bombing” and “horror” visible, but no immediate visible threat faces the family.  The revision shows a migrant family in a detention camp, posed exactly as Rockwell’s family is, but with the very clear visible threat of a barred window and guards with guns and dogs.  Rodriguez wanted to use his painting to push Americans to consider their view of migrants and refugees, an idea one reader, a retired immigration officer, called, “despicable” (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/magazine/apr_col-discussion-180968411/).

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Images from Smithsonian magazine’s re-visioning of Rockwell’s Freedom from Fear (on the left) by Edel Rodriguez (right), once a Cuban refugee himself.

But Rodriguez is a migrant himself, having come from Cuba on the Mariel Boatlift in 1980 at the age of nine.  He and his family came to the US with nothing but the clothes on their backs, the rest having been confiscated by the Cuban government.  Although Rodriguez says he was “warmly welcomed” upon their arrival in the US, he spent time in a Cuban detention camp before their departure.  And when he looks at America now, he says, “I’ve sometimes strained to differentiate my adoptive country from the dictatorship I fled. Violence at political rallies, friends watching what they say (and noting who is in the room when they say it) and a leader who picks on society’s weakest — this has felt all too familiar. I began making art about what I saw, to bear witness” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/opinions/2017/08/25/i-fled-despotism-in-cuba-now-im-fighting-it-in-america/?utm_term=.892f5588276f).  His controversial magazine covers depicting Donald Trump (in one, beheading the Statue of Liberty) have gained him notoriety.

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Like Rockwell’s and Rodriguez’s depictions of Freedom from Fear, Rodriguez’s illustration of Sonia Sotomayor as a child shows her sleeping. She has a smile on her face because she knows her mother, though poor and a migrant, can still offer her opportunity in America.

While Rodriguez’s art is designed to bear witness to the America he believes in, not all of it is controversial.  He also illustrates children’s books, and one in particular that I want to highlight combines his passion for social justice with his depiction of the immigrant struggle in America.  Jonah Winter’s Sonia Sotomayor: A Judge Grows in the Bronx (Atheneum 2009) has a title which recalls Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn—another immigrant family story published in 1943, the same year as Norman Rockwell’s paintings.  Winter’s story tells of a girl born in New York who did not have the same freedoms as those people in the Norman Rockwell paintings.  Winter talks about Sotomayor’s childhood economic poverty, but Rodriguez balances what could be a gloomy text with illustrations that show a little girl secure in the love of her mother.  Sonia looks more like the Norman Rockwell children in Freedom from Fear than the children in Rodriguez’s revision.  Sotomayor’s background of poverty made her a compassionate judge: “She had seen things most other judges had not.  People she’d grown up with had gone to jail.  People she’d grown up with were poor” (n.p.).  But she never would have become the passionate judge she became without her mother protecting her and working to ensure her freedom to be anything she wanted to be.  Just as Norman Rockwell’s Freedoms paintings contrasted America as it should be with his later Civil Rights paintings of America at its worst, Edel Rodriguez’s Rockwell revision and depiction of Sonia Sotomayor’s childhood shows the fear and promise of the American immigrant experience.  Both artists are asking Americans to choose the America that they want to embrace, and hoping that they choose love over fear.

Suffering (and Suffragetting) in Silence: British Colonial Rebels and Children’s Literature

Last week, I talked about the American midterm elections and the connection (or lack thereof) between white women, suffragettes, and a lack of concern for people of color and their issues.  This week I want to start with the same issue, but in Britain instead of America.

British women (at least the over-30s) got the vote in 1918, two years before American women.  The campaign for women’s suffrage was a brutal one in Britain; one account called the suffragettes “a large network of free-lance militants engaged in repeated acts of criminality” (“Clare Balding’s Secrets of a Suffragette” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lIknRGKCKZo).  If this phrase were applied to people of colour, rather than to white women, today, they would be labeled terrorists—and indeed, in their own time, many of the British suffragettes were called terrorists, and some supporters of women’s right to the vote distanced themselves from the movement because of the violence.  However, the suffragettes are now seen, 100 years on, as heroes and are celebrated in children’s books.

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MacDonald and Antrim’s suffragette book depicts the Edwardian movement as being made up of white women.

In many popular books and media for children, the image of the celebrated British suffragette is middle- or upper-class and white; examples of this include the popular Danger Zone series by Fiona MacDonald and David Antrim, Avoid Being a Suffragette! (Salariya 2008); and the BBC programme “Horrible Histories,” whose “Suffragettes Song” video includes only white women, and middle/upper class women as leaders (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bmUA6_6UJJU).  The song discusses the violence (“burned down churches, smashed up shops, attacked MPs”) but concludes with celebration (“Suffragettes, sing! We’ve done it, ding, ding! At last those men see you should treat us the same”).  Imagine if—even 100 years ago—women of colour were involved in burning down churches, smashing up shops and attacking MPs.  Imagine if—even 100 years ago—people of colour were not just looking for the right to vote, but for their independence from the British Empire.  Would they be celebrated in children’s books today like Emmeline Pankhurst or Emily Davison?

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Sophia Duleep Singh, pictured on the right, was an Indian princess, a suffragette–and a colonial rebel.

But of course there is no need to imagine, because there were people of colour at that time who were suffragettes.  There are many whose names we do not know, but one that we do know is Sophia Duleep Singh, an Indian princess brought up in England who became a suffragette—significantly—after traveling to India and seeing the effect of colonialism on her people.  Singh, one of the many royal godchildren that Queen Victoria adopted after more or less stealing the thrones/countries of the children’s parents or grandparents, was brought up to a life of luxury.  But her parents, exiled from India to quell any hope that the Singh family would return to rule, were unhappy in their gilded cage; her father ran off with a mistress and her mother drank herself to death.  Sophia and her sisters, knowing nothing else, became society princesses in the Edwardian era.  Her trip to India, where she was recognized as the daughter of Ranjit Singh, the last Maharajah of the Punjab, showed her how much her people had lost in being colonized and ultimately dominated by the British.  After she returned to England, she became a militant suffragette, storming Parliament and attacking the Prime Minister’s car.  But until recently, she has been absent from most children’s books about suffragettes.

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David Roberts’ book puts “The Rebel Princess” front and centre–but as a suffragette concerned about her family, rather than her country.

Two recent books that include Singh are David Roberts’ Suffragette: The Battle for Equality (Two Hoots 2018), which pictures Singh (presumably) on the front cover as well as giving her a two-page spread inside, and Kira Cochrane’s Modern Women: 52 Pioneers (Frances Lincoln 2017).  Roberts keeps the focus of Singh’s transformation to radicalism on being “troubled” (36) by the way the British had treated her family, but Cochrane’s book specifically mentions Singh’s “loathing” for the British Empire after her visit to India.  For women of colour, suffrage was not just about the right to vote; it was about the right to represent themselves and be heard as people of subjugated nations.  For years, Singh’s story was lost to child readers, and those that do depict her often shy away from her anti-colonial attitudes.

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Rabindranath Tagore was once supported by British and Irish poets, including Yeats.

Another colonial rebel who has been—and still is—lost to child readers in Britain is a Nobel Prize winner and contemporary of Sophia Duleep Singh, Rabindranath Tagore.  In fact, in the year that Tagore won the Nobel Prize, 1913, he translated his children’s book The Crescent Moon, into English and dedicated to the man who nominated him, Thomas Sturge Moore.  The book, which is about the common everyday experiences of the child, is comparable to Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses.  Indeed, both collections address rainy days, the seashore, fairyland, and paper boats.  Tagore’s “Paper Boats” speaks of how “Day by day I float my paper boats one by one down the running stream. /In big black letters I write my name on them and the name of the village where I live. /I hope that someone in some strange land will find them and know who I am” (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/6520/6520-h/6520-h.htm) while Stevenson’s “Where go the boats?” expresses a similar sentiment: “Away down the river,/ A hundred miles or more,/ Other little children/ Shall bring my boats ashore.”

Original illustrations from Tagore’s Crescent Moon–in this case by Surendranath Ganguli–recall similar illustrations of childhood in Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses (this one is by Maria Kirk from 1919):

How beneficial would it be to introduce children to these collections side-by-side and talk about the similarities and differences in both childhood and poetry in different parts of the world?  But Tagore is unknown to modern British children (and indeed, many British adults).  His Crescent Moon is not available in English editions for children, while A Child’s Garden of Verses has never been out of print.  Is this because the ideas are incomprehensible to readers? Hardly.  But after winning the Nobel Prize, Tagore became increasingly anti-imperial, and his one-time champions in the English-speaking world (who included the poet William Butler Yeats) soon decided “he no longer appeared to be the docile colonized Orientalist of their projection” (Mukherjee, “Thomas Sturge Moore and his Indian Friendships in London” 67).  In his 1918 Nationalism, Tagore complains that “at the beginning of the British rule in India our industries were suppressed, and since then we have not met with any real help or encouragement to enable us to make a stand against the monster commercial organizations of the world. The nations have decreed that we must remain purely an agricultural people, even forgetting the use of arms for all time to come. Thus India is being turned into so many predigested morsels of food ready to be swallowed at any moment by any nation which has even the most rudimentary set of teeth in its head” (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/40766/40766-h/40766-h.htm page 126).  Like Singh, it was Tagore’s nationalism and anti-imperialism that silenced him for British child readers.  Singh is creeping back into the history of the suffragette (though not necessarily anti-colonial) movement, but so far, Tagore has not been returned to his place in the history of children’s poetry.  The long arm of the British Empire continues to affect the way that British child readers experience their nation’s past, silencing those who dared to speak out against the Empire.

Acceptable Racisms and Children’s Literature

There are two kinds of racism: incidental, by which I mean something that happens because of the actions of individuals; and systemic, by which I mean the deep-rooted, institutionally-supported disadvantages experienced by people of color.  These two racisms are not mutually exclusive; often, someone feels that their individual racist comment or belief is justified because the system or society does not censure their speech or action.  Equally, if individuals were more willing to examine and censure the individual racisms of themselves and those around them, systemic racism would begin (or at least be easier) to break down.  But they certainly manifest in different ways.

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Anne Rooney’s Race Hate tries to take a balanced approach by interviewing racists. But Race Hate is apparently an individual, rather than an institutional, problem.

This week, news items in the UK and US showed both kinds of racism.  In the UK, what seem to be examples of incidental racism actually point to systemic problems.  And in the US, a result that seems to suggest systemic problems highlights the responsibility of individuals.  Bonfire Night in the UK saw one group of people delighting over the burning of a model of Grenfell Tower (https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/grenfell-tower-model-bonfire-burned-guy-fawkes-party-a8618661.html), and a Tory councilor wearing blackface at a Bonfire Night event in Hever (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/nov/07/tory-councillor-wears-blackface-kent-bonfire-celebrations).  These were both roundly condemned in the media and the public, as well as by officials.  Theresa May criticized the Grenfell Tower bonfire.  And yet, her condemnation was called out by several people who pointed out that many Tower residents are still unhoused nearly a year-and-a-half after the fire (see, for example, Nikesh Shukla’s tweet from 6 November 2018).  The bonfire was unacceptable racism; but the system that allows the people of Grenfell Tower to continue to suffer at the hands of the government is not changed.  Similarly, the Tory councilor was participating in the bonfire as a member of a Church of England school PTA.  The school dissociated itself from the incidental racism, saying, “We are very proud to be a multicultural school with ‘respect, love and wisdom’ as our motto” (Guardian online); but they failed to acknowledge their responsibility to ensuring that all members of their community—PTA included—embraced the slogan.  Neither the government nor the church created or directly encouraged the individual racist behavior.  But the government’s and the church’s own lack of action on racism makes it easier for racists to act.

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“People may have racist ideas instilled in them”: but who is doing the instilling?

Children’s books, even well-intentioned ones, do not always make this link between individual acts and institutional racism.  Anne Rooney’s Voices: Race Hate (Evans Brothers 2006) is part of a series which, according to the back cover, “brings alive a range of modern-day issues—many of them highly controversial—and aims to stimulate debate and discussion.”  Although I am not convinced there is much that is “highly controversial” about any kind of hate (hate is something we tell children is bad, no?)—not to mention the lack of controversy about the issue of hunger or child labour, other titles in the series (also bad, no?)—this series is clearly designed to discourage, rather than encourage, readers’ participation in or support of these issues.  But by failing to address the link between systemic racism and individual acts, the book ends up excusing people from the responsibility for racism.  Thus, the double-page spread, “Why Hate Other Races?” excuses individuals from racism by blaming “stereotypes” without explaining that stereotypes are connected with systemic, structural and institutional racism.  The photo on page 9 includes a caption that says, “Many white families employed black workers to serve them” but does not connect this servitude with a history of slavery, or a lack of other available employment opportunities for Black people.  Claire Heuchan and Nikesh Shukla’s recent book, What is Race? Who are Racists? Why does Skin Colour Matter? And Other Big Questions (Wayland 2018) addresses this failure to link structural and individual racism head on, pointing out the consequences of such a failure: “Even when people are aware of racism, they can hesitate to point it out because of the implication that somebody has been racist . . . So we end up in a strange situation where there is racism but, supposedly, no racists.  Except racism is produced by people who are racist—so if we are ever to pull apart the racist structures of our society, there must be a way to say who is propping them up” (6).

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Heuchan and Shukla’s book recognizes that institutional and individual racisms matter.

While individual racist acts exposed systemic problems in the UK, the news from the US this week highlighted the opposite problem.  One of the headlines of this week’s midterm elections was the record number of women who ran and won in their races.  Some media even called the elections the #MeToo Midterms (https://thehill.com/homenews/house/406183-women-wield-sizable-power-in-me-too-midterms), and election reports frequently mentioned the “suburban women” who helped defeat Trump-approved candidates.  Of course there is nothing racist in women running and supporting candidates for office (indeed, many of the new congresspeople are women of color).  But “suburban women” is media code for white women (here’s one report on “suburban women”: https://www.msnbc.com/stephanie-ruhle/watch/how-will-suburban-women-vote-in-the-midterms-1358101059960?v=railb&), and the #MeToo movement (which was started by an African-American woman) has been criticized for its focus on white women as well.  Just as second-wave feminism was about the middle-class, educated white woman, excluding and eliding the rights of women of color, the midterm elections reveal that white women will unite around an issue that directly affects them, but cannot extend their understanding of oppression to issues such as police brutality against African-Americans or racist and jingoistic language and threats against migrants and refugees.  The system allows racism to exist, and white women—who understand what it is like to be oppressed by that system—do not, through their individual votes, call for an end to that system.

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Curiously, even though White’s book mentions both abolition and the civil war as causes Morris supported, there is not a single African-American depicted in the book.

Again, even well-meaning children’s books can sometimes reinforce systemic racism (and classism) under the guise of individual choice.  Most children’s books about women’s suffrage show photographs of white women only, and have lines like, “only men can vote” (I Could Do That! Esther Morris Gets Women the Vote, by Linda Arms White, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux 2005).  This elides the fact that in America, African-Americans could not vote, and in Britain only rate-paying men could vote until 1918, the same year that women over 30 got the vote. An alternative approach can be found in Nosy Crow’s short story collection, Make More Noise: New Stories in Honour of the 100th Anniversary of Women’s Suffrage (2018).  Unlike many books about women’s suffrage, which focus almost exclusively on white women and their struggle, Make More Noise includes stories about all kinds of women and girls, historically and contemporaneously.  Patrice Lawrence’s story, “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” for example, tells the story of Olive Malvery, a woman of English and Indian parentage, who “came to London when she was twenty-three and was shocked by the way poorer women were treated” (83).  Lawrence’s story shows Malvery helping a young mixed-race girl who suffers not just from being poor, but from being brown.  When the young girl, Victoria, asks for an extension on her rent, her landlady tells her, “the best thing your father could have done was take you with him back to whatever country he came from!” (59).  This and other stories in the collection show that no woman has an identity based entirely on gender—so all women should band together to ensure everyone’s rights.

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Nosy Crow’s Make More Noise listens to the noise of all kinds of women, not just white suffragettes.

Racism is, or should be, unacceptable to people of all backgrounds because it harms the entire society.  But if we can’t recognize our individual racism, then we can’t fight systemic racism.  And if we don’t see the systemic, structural and institutional ways that racism is supported, then fighting individual racism will never lead to victory.  Racism will go on being acceptable, and we will all be the worse for it.

Criminal Minds? Alex Wheatle’s Kerb Stain Boys and Crime in British Children’s Books

I was once in a second-hand bookstore with my older brother, looking for books for my collection of Black British children’s literature.  One title and spine stuck out to me, and I said to my brother, “This book has a Black British child in it.”  He looked at me, confused.  “Do you know the book?  Or the author?”  “No,” I said, “I’ve never seen it before, and I don’t recognize the author.  But I guarantee you it is a British book and has a Black British child in it, probably on the cover.”  He looked at me doubtfully, so I pulled the book off the shelf.  There, on the cover of John Escott’s Burglar Bells (1983), were two boys looking at a third person breaking into a house.  One of the two boys was black.

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John Escott’s Burglar Bells could have had all white British children–but it didn’t. Illustration by Maureen Bradley.

It wasn’t really a magic trick that I performed.  Two things told me all I needed to know.  First, the spine, and the fact that it was hardbacked but paperback-sized, let me know it was from Hamish Hamilton—their books are easy to recognize.  But second, the title had something about robbery in it.  In preparation for writing this blog, I went to my middle grade shelves of books from the 1960s to the 1980s, and easily pulled off half a dozen books with robbery, thieving, burglary, or rioting in the title—all of them with Black British characters.  Because of the time in which they were written, most of these books have a white focalizing character who somehow befriends a black child or family. John Escott’s Burglar Bells is one of the few that have the relationship between the white and black children already established; Bernie (white) and Lee (black) go to the same school and are already friends when the book starts.  They are joined in their quest to foil a robbery by another classmate, Rosemary (also white).  There really isn’t anything in the story to suggest that Lee had any kind of different background from Bernie or Rosemary in terms of language (no patois or slang), culture or homelife (in fact we never see Lee at home throughout the story), so the story could reasonably be reillustrated with all white (or all black) children.  But I don’t think it was an accident that this book included a Black British character, as this plot was common during the post-Windrush era.

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An early example is Christine Pullein-Thompson’s Robbers in the Night (Hamish Hamilton, 1967).  In this book, the main character, Paul, has come to Britain from Jamaica, and he remembers “the blazing sun, the dust, the hot sea” (7) with fondness.  But although his family is hardworking and kind, Paul gets caught up with a white boy gang who want him to help them rob houses.  At first, Paul is attracted by the boys and their easy money; when his sister tells him to stay away from them because “we have to be better than other people because we are immigrants” (47), Paul retorts that, “We can’t be immigrants for ever.  One day we will be like everyone else . . . I don’t want to be different” (47).  Paul ends up aiding and abetting the white gang to rob a country house, crawling through a window and opening a door for them when the gang leader threatens him with a knife.  When he at last confesses to the police, they do not arrest him as he had feared, but tell him, “You’re a law-abiding citizen.  Those miserable youths were trying to corrupt you.  Hurry home and get some sleep.  You need it” (115).

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Nina Bawden’s The Robbers does not have any Black Britons on the cover, but nonetheless, Black British Addie plays a pivotal role in the novel.

This idea of being Black British, hardworking and kind, but mixed up in crime nonetheless is repeated in Nina Bawden’s The Robbers (Lothrop, Lee and Shepard 1979).  The book focuses on two white boys, the wealthy Philip Holbein and the poor Darcy Green.  Philip becomes interested in Darcy and his family when he moves to London to live with his father.  He meets Darcy when he sees him on Philip’s family’s estate and thinks he is a robber.  In the course of the book, Darcy’s brother is actually convicted of robbery, although he doesn’t knowingly do anything wrong.  Darcy and Philip try to earn money for Darcy’s brother’s wife, Addie, who is pregnant and has been sacked by her employer because of her husband’s conviction.  Addie is “a tall, handsome black woman” (36), “like a queen” (36).  She suffers most from the alleged robbery, but she has done nothing.  Like Lee in Burglar Bells, we learn nothing about Addie’s background, and there’s no clear reason for Bawden to have made her character black rather than white. And like all the characters in these stories, the Black British character is not the guilty one, but is led into an association with crime by white British people.

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Stuart Hall et al argue that the mugging “epidemic” of the 1970s was a “moral panic” stirred up by the police and media.

I have always felt vaguely uncomfortable about these books, because the titles and the Black British characters seemed to connect Black Britons with crime and criminality at a time when the British media was filled with stories of West Indian youths mugging white British people, something that Stuart Hall, in Policing the Crisis (1978) called a “moral panic”: “On the margins of the mugging epidemic, then, there arises its pre-history: the longer and more complex story of the striking deterioration in police-black relations, especially between the police in certain areas of the big cities and sections of black youth. It is only in this context that the innovatory role of the police, in the generation of a moral panic, can be properly assessed and understood” (52).  Although the Black British characters in these books are only marginally connected to crime, the white characters and the reading public feels that they belong in books about burglary.  Institutional racism makes the link between race and crime seem natural.

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Therefore, when Alex Wheatle’s latest book, Kerb Stain Boys: The Crongton Broadway Robbery (Barrington Stoke 2018) arrived in my mailbox, I admit to feeling a little nervous about what to expect.  In many ways, the story has similarities to the earlier books about robbery; a white boy (Terry, or Terror as he is known to his friends) leads his Black friend Briggy, into a plot to rob the Crongton Broadway Post Office.  Wheatle himself has written that the book, “is influenced in tone, language and narrative by film noir” (https://www.booktrust.org.uk/news-and-features/features/2018/october/alex-wheatle-what-happens-when-diverse-readers-see-themselves-reflected-in-fiction/), a genre which suggest the likelihood of a grim ending for our anti-heroes.  But unlike Bawden’s The Robbers or Pullein-Thompson’s Robbers in the Night, Wheatle’s book does not focus on the goodness or badness of its characters.  If anything, Briggy and Terror are amoral; they decide it is acceptable to rob the post office because they think that life is not going to offer them anything better.  “I’ll tell you what’s stupidocious,” Terror tells Briggy when he objects to the plan, “Trying to get a job that pays you sweet when we’re done with school.  Stupidocious is putting on a tie and going to interview after pissing interview when you know they’re not gonna give you shit” (38).  Briggy, reflecting on Terror’s words, agrees: “I couldn’t argue.  That’s how it was.” Much of the novel is as much comic heist as film noir—the boys and their femme fatale, Caldonia Lake, plan to rob the post office with repainted toy Star Wars guns—but Wheatle’s message is serious: kids living in a society that continually reminds them they are worthless do not feel any reason to abide by that society’s rules.  Wheatle’s book is revolutionary because it exposes the system that creates criminals, and does not damn the boys for trying to break out of that system.  Although they are punished with time in youth detention, they find an alternative, non-standard route out of poverty while there, and both end the book with success.  Wheatle’s novella is a strong and much-needed reminder that the “criminal” is created by society’s refusal to acknowledge the possibility in all members of society, and not by any in-born “criminal minds.”

Not Riding the Bus Alone: Doctor Who, Rosa Parks and Malorie Blackman

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Blackman had previously written this Doctor Who story in honor of the 50th anniversary of the series; it featured the seventh doctor.

This past week’s episode of “Doctor Who” was co-written (with Chris Chibnell) by the phenomenally talented Malorie Blackman, author of Noughts and Crosses and British Children’s Laureate from 2013-2015, and concerned the 1955 Bus Boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, catalyzed by Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a bus and her subsequent arrest.  The episode was of course fantastic, tense and taut in its plotting, horrifying in its historical details, and deeply emotional.  It is good for the audience of “Doctor Who” to be reminded that there was a time, not so long ago, when giving a white lady back her glove could get a Black kid threatened with lynching.  (Now, as nine-year-old Jeremy Harvey knows, it “only” results in the police being called: https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2018/10/13/black-childs-backpack-brushed-up-against-woman-she-called-report-sexual-assault/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.284fbbbe112d.) In typical “Doctor Who” fashion, the episode contains didactically-delivered history, with the Doctor writing up facts on the wall of a whites-only motel as if it were a schoolroom blackboard and her companion Yas, who is mistaken for a Mexican person in 1955 Montgomery, researches details about the bus boycott in a banker’s lamp-lit library.  I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I’m pleased to see the show tackling these historical events.

But.

The episode makes a generalization (I’ll not call it an error, given that it is impossible to deliver all the history of a single event in the space of fifty minutes) that turns Rosa Parks’ story into a mythic one; and it also fails to connect Parks’ story to other histories—particularly those in Britain itself.

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Funny, I don’t see Doctor Who sitting anywhere . . .

The generalization is that Rosa Parks made her decision not to stand up on the bus by herself.  In my own childhood, Parks was described as being too tired to get up; recent children’s books have done better about correcting that idea.  Rosa Parks: My Story by Parks herself, with the assistance of Jim Haskins (Puffin 1999) states firmly several times that Parks was tired, but not physically.  Even the back cover proclaims, “The only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”  The “Doctor Who” episode does not make this error; the depiction of Parks shows a quietly determined woman, not a tired and elderly one.  But the idea that the Doctor and her companions had to make sure that Parks got on that bus, that night, or the racists would win (and, as the time-traveling villain says to the Doctor’s Black companion Ryan, “your kind” will stay in their place) suggests that the bus boycott was down to the actions of a single woman.  I do not wish to take away from Parks’ courage, but just as in “Doctor Who” she had the support of the Doctor and her companions as she took her stand, Parks in real life did not make a random decision that night: she did not ride that bus alone.

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Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat on the bus more than half a year before Parks, but at 15 and pregnant, she was far from the “model minority” that the NAACP needed.

Parks was in fact the secretary of the local NAACP chapter; she was an advisor to the chapter’s youth group, whose members included 15-year-old Claudette Colvin.  Colvin had, the previous March, been arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white person, but because she was young, unwed and pregnant, the NAACP did not see her as a suitable person around whom to organize a boycott—something they had long planned.  Parks had been moved to take a stand in part because of the case of Emmett Till, whose murderers had recently been set free; a rally at the Dexter Street Baptist Church (Martin Luther King, Jr’s church) four days prior to Parks’ action had been organized to discuss how to respond to the violence against Black people and specifically discussed Till’s case.  The “Doctor Who” episode mentions both Till and a “movement”, but the specific connections are not made clear.  This is, I think, unfortunate, because community organization was key to many of the successes of the Civil Rights Movement in America.

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Stephenson’s story, and that of the Bristol Bus Boycott in 1963, would make an excellent children’s history book. Or Doctor Who episode.

Also, I think the episode missed an opportunity to connect Parks’ story with the wider African diasporic community.  At the beginning of the episode, Ryan says in response to the question, who was Rosa Parks, “She was the first Black woman to drive a bus”.  When chastised by Yas, he shrugs and says he didn’t pay attention to her story in school because Parks was American.  The episode works to show how “Rosa Parks changed the world” and thus should be important to all viewers—but this doesn’t really address Ryan’s complaint.  At the conclusion of the episode, the Doctor tells them that not only did Parks change the world, she changed the universe; she then shows them an asteroid named after Parks.  I get the science fiction connection, but it might have been more powerful—and more relevant to Ryan—if the Doctor had explained how Parks’ action had, in 1963, inspired Bristol resident and Black Briton Paul Stephenson to organize the Bristol Bus Boycott, protesting the “colour bar” that kept Black Britons from becoming city bus drivers.  Stephenson writes about how, “Seeing what was happening in the USA I decided we should draw more attention to what was happening here with black people, particularly in Bristol.  I then decided to take on the Bristol Bus Company because it was a symbol of all that was wrong with Bristol as it advocated racism, defended racism and was the most notorious racist employer in the city” (Memoirs of a Black Englishman 51).  The boycott, which was successful, led not only to Afro-Caribbean drivers being hired, but Indian and Pakistani drivers (who were also, at the time, considered Black).  In fact, the first driver to be hired was Raghbir Singh, a Punjabi.  Bringing this connection to Parks’ story up could therefore have connected Black British history with Parks’ efforts—and also shown how communities of colour, including the communities that Doctor Who companions Ryan and Yas belong to, worked together for change.

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The Bristol Bus Station has a plaque to the boycott that shows its leaders, as well as Singh, the first bus driver hired after the boycott ended (far right).

As I said, though, I thoroughly enjoyed the episode, and teared up at the end like many other sentimental viewers (https://metro.co.uk/2018/10/21/doctor-who-fans-left-sobbing-and-inspired-by-rosa-parks-episode-i-have-literal-goosebumps-8061149/).  I can only hope Blackman will get more chances to write for “Doctor Who”—and that next time, she will introduce her viewers to some Black British heroes.  Mary Seacole and Claudia Jones, anyone?